Small talk is something many of us avoided even before the pandemic, and neither months of social distancing or the awkward return of socialising has made it easier – but it’s something that can still save lives.
That is the message from Samaritans, as the mental health charity and helpline relaunches its campaign to raise awareness about the role small talk can play in preventing suicide on the railways and in other public settings.
The ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’ campaign has run in partnership with Network Rail, British Transport Police and the rail industry since 2017. But as the UK steps out of lockdown, it is focusing on rebuilding public confidence to trust our gut and start conversations with anyone who looks as though they may need help.
Brits are known for being quite reserved, especially in public. We rarely go out of our way to speak to strangers and keep ourselves to ourselves. But engaging in the smallest of conversations – it could be as simple as asking “hello, what’s the time?” – may help interrupt someone’s suicidal thoughts, Samaritans says.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on mental health – and while it may have made the idea of small talk more daunting, it has also made us value a sense of community.
Dom, who prefers not to give his surname, knows how important small talk can be. As a teenager, he was experiencing suicidal thoughts but was interrupted at a crucial moment by someone who used small talk to ask if he was ok.
“When I was 19 years old, I was struggling to cope and didn’t know where to turn,” he tells HuffPost UK. “I was on my way to university one day and found myself thinking about ending my life. A lady came over and started a conversation with me and when I heard her ask, “are you ok?” it instantly snapped me out of thinking about harming myself.”
Dom, who now works for Network Rail himself, says he’s supporting the ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’ campaign because it saved his.
“From my own experience, I know suicidal thoughts can be interrupted and it was the kindness behind the small talk that also made a difference to me,” he says. “That human connection made me feel seen.
Working in the railway sector for almost a decade, Dom has used small talk on several occasions when someone’s behaviour has concerned him.
There aren’t “typical” signs someone might need help, Dom says. “When I’ve approached people, sometimes it’s because they’ve looked withdrawn, distant, or upset. Other times, they seem completely calm, but I’ll notice that they’re in an unusual location in relation to the environment. I would say, if you get a sense that something might be wrong, trust your instincts and start a conversation – as I’ve experienced, you could save a life.”
The public is better prepared for these interventions that you might expect.
A YouGov survey for Samaritans found over three quarters (78%) of UK adults have engaged in small talk during the pandemic – 37% of those surveyed said they had chatted with neighbours they hadn’t spoken to before and 37% with strangers at the supermarket.
Almost one in five said they are also more likely to want to make small talk with a stranger face-to-face not that restrictions are lifted. Given that small talk makes 57% of respondents feel less lonely and boosts the mental health and wellbeing of a further 45%, there’s potential to make a real difference here.
Of course, starting a conversation with a stranger can be difficult and it’s natural to feel nervous.
“If you spot someone you’re worried about and aren’t comfortable approaching them, then that’s completely fine as well,” Dom says. “You can still act by trying to find someone else who might be able to help, for example, a member of staff or police officer, or you can call 999 in an emergency.”
But with everything that’s happened in the past 18 months, Dom is optimistic that people can make a difference. “One thing I’ve noticed is the pandemic seems to have brought out a greater sense of community,” he says.
“I think we all recognise how important human connection is and that checking in on each other – whether it’s a friend or family member, a neighbour or key worker you’ve never spoken to before – can make a huge, positive difference to someone else’s day, as well as your own.”
Useful websites and helplines
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI – this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.